Florida City Floats Cellphone Tracking for Better Streetscaping

The city of West Palm Beach is considering a proposal that would allow cellphone signals to be tracked through part of the downtown area. Officials say the undertaking would provide better analytics about how people move through the area.

by Tony Doris, The Palm Beach Post / April 22, 2019
A view of the popular West Palm Beach downtown district with city hall along Clematis Street. Shutterstock/Fotoluminate LLC

(TNS) — Your cellular phone is talking even when you aren't, and the city might want to listen to it.

West Palm Beach's economic development director, Christopher Roog, this week presented the mayor and city commissioners with a proposal for a Florida Atlantic University researcher to track phone signals as people drive, bike or walk on Clematis Street.

The idea is to analyze where downtown visitors go — what shops, what public places, and at what time — and how they get there. The city could use it to study traffic flow and gauge the impact of changes it makes to the streetscape, while merchants could use the data to strategize to improve business.

Mayor Keith James said at the mayor-commission work session Monday that he found the idea "very interesting" and indicated he would bring it up for a commission vote in coming weeks.

"It provides a very powerful streetscape analytics tool" to gather "hyper-local" information of value to residents, merchants and the public, said Jason Hallstrom, professor in FAU's Department of Computer and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, who spelled out details of what would be a joint project of the city and university.

According to Hallstrom, the research is possible because 80 percent of the U.S. population owns network-connected smartphones, whose signal can be tracked with precision.

"Whether you use the device or not, it is constantly chattering," sending out a "hello beacon which says, 'I would like to connect to a network.' Within that message is a unique code, etched in the silicon. It is constantly being broadcast as you walk around with that device," Hallstrom said.

The signals are like breadcrumbs and the researchers could assemble those breadcrumbs to study "individual mobility pathways" and combine them with city maps to track and analyze where they go, he said.

Special receivers would be placed up and down Clematis, to pick up the signals. The researcher, likely an FAU doctoral student, later could conduct the same analysis elsewhere around the city.

Sounds pretty 1984?

According to a New York Times investigation, there's a hot market for location data gathered from mobile phones that have location services enabled. Sales of location-targeted advertising reached $21 billion last year, the Times reported Dec. 10, in an article titled, "Your Apps Know Where You Were Last Night, and They're Not Keeping It Secret."

Those with access to the data can identify a person without consent, the article said. "They could follow someone they knew, by pinpointing a phone that regularly spent time at that person's home address. Or, working in reverse, they could attach a name to an anonymous dot, by seeing where the device spent nights and using public records to figure out who lived there."

Protecting personal privacy "is something personally that I care very deeply about," Hallstrom said, adding that safeguards would be added to prevent the signal from being tracked back to an individual.

As a former police officer, "I know law enforcement will request data," Commissioner Joe Peduzzi said. Would they be able to track a person's movements, he asked?

With the phone and a subpoena, that would be possible, Hallstrom replied.

The data would be owned by the city, and the city and FAU jointly might license the analytics that stem from the project to outside parties, he said.

Roog estimated the project would run three years and cost $600,000. The Knight Foundation, which has funded several innovative programs in the city, indicated it would cover half the cost, leaving the city responsible for $100,000 per year, he said. The city's Community Redevelopment Agency also might contribute, he said.

The project offers "significant potential," James concluded. "I'm excited in terms of what we can learn and how it can influence our strategies."

©2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.